(MCT) — When Tim Donges fulfilled his dream and finally saved up enough money to buy land in Kansas, he was thrilled.
He moved to the Sunflower State for one reason: the nationally famous population of trophy deer.
An avid hunter, he had chased whitetails in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, and he saw nothing that could compare to Kansas.
But not long after moving to the state in 1998, a sharp rifle shot in the night alerted him that even in paradise, there can be problems. Big problems.
“I talked to the neighbors, and they said that was common,” said Donges, who lives outside of El Dorado, Kan. “They said poachers would regularly drive in and spotlight deer.
“Everyone was fed up with it. I had one neighbor who had his family outside for Thanksgiving and he could hear bullets ricocheting off his building. Another said he would find carcasses of deer in his field, with the heads cut off (for the trophy antlers). My father-in-law had two of his cows shot.
“I have to admit, I was wondering what I was getting into. I had never seen the illegal activity this bad anywhere else I have hunted.”
Don’t get the wrong idea. Kansas isn’t overrun with problems like this throughout the state. But officials with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism acknowledge that it’s a growing problem.
Once, the Sunflower State flew under the radar when it came to its excellent trophy deer hunting. No longer.
Television shows, magazine articles and word of mouth have focused attention on the state and turned it into a prime destination for hunters. But law enforcement officials are concerned that the illegal element also is flocking to the state.
“Poaching is the curse of having a wonderful resource like we do,” said Lloyd Fox, deer biologist for the Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
Almost 100,000 deer are taken legally in Kansas each hunting season. Law enforcement officers don’t have any idea of how many are taken illegally. But Kevin Jones, chief of law enforcement for Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, did say, “I think it would astound us to know how many deer are being taken illegally. I think the number of deer we’re finding that have been shot illegally, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
A recent spate of nationally-publicized cases has illustrated the problem — and shown that law enforcement is ready to signal that poachers aren’t welcome in Kansas.
In what has been called one of the worst trophy-deer poaching cases in U.S. history, an operation in Comanche County from 2005 to 2008 resulted in more than 100 deer — many of them large bucks — being taken illegally. Authorities say Texas outfitter James Butler Jr., his brother Marlin and others guided clients on illegal deer hunts that allegedly involved spotlighting, taking deer with rifles during archery season, and other offenses.
Butler was sentenced in U.S. District Court to more than three years in jail and was ordered to pay $50,000 in fines. His brother was sentenced to just over two years in jail and $20,000 in fines. Some of the clients, who were from Texas and Louisiana, also faced stiff penalties.
The Butler brothers’ sentences were overturned on appeal this year — with the court deeming that the penalties were too severe —and the case was sent back to the lower courts. The case is still under consideration.
David Kent came to the Monster Buck Classic in his hometown of Topeka in January to show off the massive 14-point buck he had shot. He won honors for the show and learned that he might have taken a state-record deer.
There was only one problem. He had taken it illegally.
Conservation officers compared the antlers to a photo that showed the buck in Osage County about 100 miles from where Kent said he had shot the deer and were convinced that it was the same animal. Kent later admitted he had poached the buck, law enforcement officers said.
He was sentenced to 15 consecutive weekends in jail and a $1,500 fine.
William “Spook” Spann of Tennessee, host of the outdoors television show “Spook Nation,” ran into trouble with the law when he was in Kansas to film a show.
In 2007, Spann allegedly purchased a whitetail buck and transported its antlers from Stafford County, Kan., to his home state. An investigation by state and federal authorities culminated in charges of two counts of transporting wildlife to Tennessee that had been knowingly illegally killed. He could face jail time and up to $250,000 in fines.
“We hope that some of these cases send the message that we’re serious about fighting poaching,” Jones said. “It’s a crime — these poachers are stealing from the law-abiding hunters — and we’re not going to stand for it.”
So who is this guy, the poacher?
Some picture an organized ring of criminals, sweeping into an area to mass kill big bucks and sell the trophy antlers to the highest bidder.
But that’s the exception, not the rule, law enforcement officials say.
“In a lot of cases, it’s just the thrill of the kill,” Jones said. “We’ve seen some groups where their success is determined by how many deer they can kill. Some of them even have competitions — big-buck contests.
“When I was in Wyoming, I remember one case where we had two kids who were just out of high school who went on a killing spree. We found 74 mule-deer carcasses and we could tie them to 41 of them.
“They would just shoot the deer and let them lay. It was a total disregard for the resource.”
For others, Jones said, it’s a game. “They want to see if they can get away with it,” he said. “It’s cat and mouse with the game warden.”
In the highly publicized case in Comanche County, dubbed “Operation Cimarron” by law-enforcement officials, clients came from Texas and Louisiana to target Kansas’ trophy deer. The camp owner, Butler, would charge between $2,500 and $5,500 for guided hunts often using illegal methods.
“The clients would take the mounts home and hang them on their wall,” Jones said. “They weren’t selling the racks; they were acting like the deer were taken legally and they had something to brag about.”
But it’s not always the out-of-state hunters who are causing the problem. Often, it’s someone in the community, said Donges, the landowner near El Dorado , who is also involved with the Quality Deer Management Association.
“We’ve identified six poachers who live in the area,” he said. “Some of them have been caught, but they’ll just pay the fine and be back at it again.”
Problems with poaching aren’t unique to Kansas.
In neighboring Missouri, law-enforcement officials have been battling the illegal element for years.
The Department of Conservation fights the problem with everything from airplane patrols to undercover operations to stem the tide. And those efforts often produce eye-opening results.
Larry Yamnitz, chief of law enforcement for the Department of Conservation, often refers to an undercover operation dubbed “Operation Wallhanger” as proof.
“We heard of some illegal activity going on in the Ozarks, so we set up a taxidermy shop in Shannon County,” Yamnitz said.
“We took in mostly deer and it turns out 62 percent of them were taken illegally and resulted in arrests.”
The biggest problem Missouri conservation agents see during deer season is tagging violations — for example, someone shooting a deer and using someone else’s tag to check it in, allowing them to still use their tag.
But violations such as trespassing and illegally taking a deer, road hunting and spotlighting also are major concerns.
In the past, country judges in Kansas would sometimes greet poaching incidents with a wink and a “boys will be boys” attitude — and little penalty.
But that is changing. As law-enforcement officials hammer home how serious the problem has become, there has been a movement to toughen the consequences of poaching, especially if it is a trophy animal.
For the past year, Donges, has led an effort to stiffen penalties in Kansas, as states such as Ohio have.
The Kansas Legislature earlier this year established a statute that will call for greater punishment for poachers taking trophy game. For example, those who illegally take a whitetail buck with antlers that have an inside spread of at least 16 inches will be subject to a fine of not less than $5,000. On top of that, they will have to pay the state restitution for the trophy animal, based on a formula for determining the value of the animal.
Hunters who get busted with an illegal whitetail deer that flirts with 200 inches of antler could be fined $20,000, The Wichita Eagle reported.
“We’re hoping these stiffer penalties will give serious poachers some pause,” Jones said.
“It will show that we’re taking this seriously.”
In the end, though, Jones knows that the key to stemming illegal hunting is getting the cooperation of the public.
“We need the public’s help,” he said.